Saturday, October 1, 2016

Wages of Drear

By Hank Parmer


Violent Road (1958)
Directed by Howard W. Koch
Screenplay by Richard Landau
Story by Don Martin (dik-dik-dik FAGROON klubble klubble)

Tagline: To ride the load he rode you had to be more than a man! (Yeah, I don't have the slightest idea what this means, either.)

Violent Road opens with a bang, literally, as a Redstone missile -- that cutting-edge example of good old American know-how, as supplied by some barely ex-Nazi German rocket scientists -- lifts off. All seems to be going A-OK, when suddenly it veers out of control. It smacks into an elementary school just as the school day is ending, incinerating dozens of kids and their moms in a fiery holocaust.

Oopsie! Wer-ner, you got some 'splainin' to do .... It's a shame they didn't have Don lighten this scene up a bit with some goofy sound effects.

Cut to tough, cynical Mitch Barton (Brian Keith) as Carrie (Merry Anders), his lady friend for the night, drops him off at the Cyclone Rocket Company. They have a brief conversation, in which we learn that Mitch isn't the kind of fella who'll let himself be tied down by one dame. (Two, maybe -- three, definitely!) She drives away, bitterly disappointed. At least he could have kicked in some money for gas.

After leaving his suitcase with the security guard, he wanders onto the plant yard, which is the scene of frenetic activity. He asks directions to the Boss's office from a helpful truck driver, Pat Farley (John Dennis). After he exits, Pat sneaks around to the back of his truck and takes a nip from a fifth he's cleverly concealed beneath a pile of ropes. Sweaty, bare-chested, hard-hatted worker Ben (Arthur Batanides) -- looking like he's just back from a rave at The Toolbox -- walks up and rags on Pat for goofing off. But co-workers mixing hard liquor and heavy machinery don't cause this guy to bat an eye.

Arriving at Nelson's office, Mitch greets the secretary's gams with a wolf-whistle and overwhelms her with his tough, cynical charm and pumped biceps. During his job interview with the boss of Cyclone, we find out that Mitch fudged it a bit when he said he was from Continental Trucking: He was actually fired by Continental three days ago. But by golly, he knows trucks and drivers -- he can smell them, he claims.

Nelson isn't impressed by Mitch's olfactory talent. He threatens to have security "blast him out of this office" (rather an unfortunate choice of words, if you ask me) but our hero isn't about to be intimidated. He knows Nelson is between a rock and a hard place. He has to move the plant elsewhere, immediately, what with those silly townspeople having been spooked by that little boo-boo with the missile that massacred their kids. Sad, really: If only Cyclone had been sited in Texas, none of this would have been a problem.

Mitch found out through the truckers' grapevine that Nelson has some cargo that's so hot none of the trucking companies will touch it. He needs drivers and helpers for three trucks. The boss says he's looking for a driver who's familiar with the road: every bump, every hole, every patch of gravel. So despite Nelson's misgivings, we can be certain he'll have no choice but to hire our hero for the job.

I ain't askin' for a million dollars, Mitch assures our captain of industry, I just want a job. He exits, leaving Nelson to ponder his options. The camera pans to a cheap plastic toy replica of a multi-stage rocket. (I believe I had one of those when I was a kid.)

Time to meet our other major protagonist: Frank "Sarge" Miller (Dick Foran), former war hero, now just a late-middle-aged failure.

His wife gripes at him for being late to dinner, then they sit down to their joyless meal. Hung on the wall behind Frank are a Japanese flag and various souvenirs from his glory days in the Marines. Not your typical choice of dining room decor, but I guess it's important to beat the chumps -- er, audience over the head with the fact that Frank just won't let it go.

While they glumly masticate their overcooked pot roast, mashed potatoes and green beans, Frank's wife tries to coax him into taking her to a movie, just to get out for a change, but no dice. She desperately pleads with him to pack up and get out of this two-bit burg before it's too late -- ooo, foreshadowing! -- but he's not listening. Why, he says, there could be a new war any day, and then they'll need him.

This depressing tableau concludes with Frank heading down to the local watering hole.

At Garnet's Bar, Mitch drools over a pinup calendar, while the script tries to flesh out Ben and Pat's characters a bit: Ben is a compulsive gambler, desperate for a stake so he can blow this dying town and head for Vegas. Pat's hitting the booze again and dancing with unenthusiastic Carrie, while Pat's younger brother, Ken (Sean Garrison) and his date watch.

Enter Frank, still wearing his old Corps fatigues and forage cap, faded sergeant's stripes on his sleeves. He sits down at the bar, next to a couple of Marines from the nearby base. The catty bitches make snide remarks about his age, his weight ("the battle of the bulge") and general uselessness. Back to Ken and his disgruntled date, who now supply Pat's back story: He's drowning his sorrows in drink because he was a hot-shot quarterback in college, but now he's just a regular shlemiel.

Pat also has a tender tummy, and has to interrupt his performance of The Dance of the Tequila Fairies to dash to the john. After a prolonged conversation with Ralph, Pat listens to his younger brother reiterate that college-hero-now-a-zero back story, sprinkled with a liberal helping of Ken's resentment over growing up in Pat's shadow and always getting hind teat.

Meanwhile, Carrie reconsiders her choice of date for tonight, reviews the limited selection, and hooks up with Mitch again.

Next morning, Joe -- Perry Lopez, who sadly doesn't seem important enough to get his own back story -- knocks on Mitch's door and tells him Nelson wants to see him. The movie delicately implies Mitch and Carrie spent the night together by having him glance back into his motel room before he exits. Then, just to make certain you got the hint, there's a quick pan to Carrie's convertible. How very discreet of them.

At the plant, Nelson and scientist George Lawrence (Efram Zimbalist, Jr.) fill Mitch in on the job. They need three trucks to carry the separate components of rocket fuel: hydrazine, concentrated hydrogen peroxide, and nitric acid. Since the authorities won't let them transport the stuff over public highways, they'll have to use the old gravel road across the mountains to get to the new plant site. To sweeten the deal, there's a $30,000 bonus, to be divided between whoever survives the trip. They'll get to keep the trucks -- and spend the night in fabulous Bismarck!

Let's pause for a moment to reflect on the story so far: I imagine most of my readers (smart, good-looking individuals that they are) will find this plot familiar, either from having seen William Friedkin's Sorcerer or Henri-George Clouzot's original 1953 thriller, The Wages of Fear. But in those films the trucks are transporting nitroglycerin. (In Friedkin's remake, it's dynamite that's been stored too long and become unstable.) Once the protagonists set out on their perilous journey, the suspense lies in whether anyone will make it, with the distinct possibility that at any moment they'll be blown to atoms.

However, Messrs. Landau and Martin just ensured that in this cheap, crappy and most of all uncredited remake, you can safely assume all three trucks will make it. Otherwise, the whole thing would be an exercise in futility. This is an American movie, dammit, and will remain uncontaminated by the slightest hint of that wimpy, Frenchified bleak existentialism.

Great job, Dick and Don!

The film treats us to a montage of preparations for this hazardous trip, while Leith Stevens supplies one of his trademark strings-and-brass-bloated, men-doing-manly-things-with-machines musical interludes.

There's a tense moment, when it looks as though one of the tanks of nitric acid is going to get away from them as a crane's loading it onto the truck. Mitch saves the day by leaping into the cab and moving the truck. Whew! While the tanks of acid are being strapped down, we find out that George was in charge of making the rocket fuel and feels terribly remorseful about those schoolkids. Though Nelson tries to dissuade him, he insists on going along.

Pat and Ken arrive. Pat's falling-down drunk, but kid brother Ken claims he can take care of the driving. Mitch objects, but Nelson overrules him: The kid does some stock-car racing, so he's clearly qualified to handle a heavy-duty truck hauling a volatile load over rough terrain. Sarge will drive the nitric acid truck, with George as helper. Because their names rhyme so nicely, Ken and Ben get the concentrated hydrogen peroxide, and Mitch will take the hydrazine truck, with Joe along to keep him company. Pat is left behind, even though he does an uncanny impression of Brandon de Wilde in the last scene of Shane.

Their perilous trek begins. The script makes up for not having given Joe a back story earlier by having him tell Mitch he's planning to use the money for college. More padding is supplied by having Ken do his a capella rendition of the obligatory pop tune those hep youngsters demand from their movies: "Breezin' Along with the Breeze".

They turn off on the long-disused gravel track they're to follow over the mountain. Chugging along up the steep road, they come to a spot where a landslide has partially blocked the way. But Mitch believes he can negotiate the narrow passage between a boulder and the mountainside. Joe dismounts and walks backwards in front of the truck, to guide Mitch through this tricky spot.

Something -- I guess it's supposed to be the vibration from the truck -- dislodges some gravel up above, as well as what must be one of the most unconvincing paper-mache boulders in movie history. But before it can hit on that truckload of hydrazine, quick-thinking Joe deflects it with a flying kick!


"Hi-Keebah!"

I tell you, these fuc -- er, truckers were tough, back in them days! That boulder must have weighed at least half a ton, and it was bounding down that near-perpendicular slope like a jackrabbit with its tail on fire. A less masculine mortal would have been lucky to get off with a shattered leg, but not this guy. Nosiree, Bob. Joe dusts himself off and rejoins Mitch.

Sarge gets his truck through without a problem. But Ken has to show off: He bets his partner $500 that Ben doesn't have the stones to ride with him as he blows through that narrow gap. He floors it, and speeds past the obstruction, just ahead of another puny spate of gravel and more paper mache boulders. While Ben changes his underwear, Mitch chews Ken out, and threatens to stick his head in the sand if he tries another stunt like that.

More driving. You just can't get enough of these shots of trucks rumbling along gravel roads and desert highways. Not having used a stopwatch for comparison, I can't be certain, but it seems like there's more driving during this part of this 86-minute film than there was in the two-and-half hour long original. Probably because instead of the brilliant, white-knuckle set pieces which distinguished the original, the best these clowns can come up with is this feeble nonsense. They have to have been desperate for filler.

In the nitric acid truck, George has a flashback: Turns out his wife and three kids were casualties of the missile mishap, too. No wonder he's so out-of-sorts. Actually, he seems remarkably laid back, after having had his entire family flash-cooked just a few days previously.

Suddenly, their engine starts missing. The other two trucks pull over. Mitch leaves Joe -- who, unlike George, is a mechanic and not just a useless load -- with Sarge, telling them to catch up with the other two trucks later, once the engine's fixed. While Joe's working on the carburetor, Sarge inspects the tanks. Oh noes: nitric acid is leaking from one of them! The cap must have been jarred loose during that rough patch.

Sarge instantly flashes back to the particularly acrimonious argument he had with his wife last night, after she caught him trying to sneak back into the house in the early hours. She mercilessly shreds his dreams of renewed martial glory, screaming that nobody needs him and nobody wants him. "Big soldier boy!" she taunts him. "Big soldier boy!"

So he now makes the only logical choice, and tightens that leaky cap with his bare hand. The flesh on his acid-splattered hand smokes and bubbles. Close-up of Sarge's agonized grimace.

'Kay .... Well, heck, it's not like they would have issued these guys heavy-duty rubber gloves, or a pipe wrench, for just this eventuality. You think this Nelson gink is some kind of Nostradamus or something?

If you're at all familiar with The Wages of Fear, it should be blindingly obvious that Dick Foran's "Sarge" is  modeled on Charles Vanel's "Jo". In somewhat the same sense that what my cat just horked up on the doormat is modeled on Rodin's "The Thinker". Unlike in the original film, here the character is horribly injured in a way which leaves Mitch -- our store-brand version of Yves Montand's "Mario" -- entirely blameless. No moral ambiguities in this flick, Bub! They'd only confuse the audience.

Rather than trying to move him, Joe ties Sarge down in the back of the truck and races to catch up with the others. In a truck hauling nitric acid -- which has already leaked out once before. Mitch of course decides there's nothing they can do but keep movin' on.

Outside the town of Bismarck -- in a really disappointing bait-and-switch it's the one in Arizona, not the glittering capital of North Dakota -- they're met by the sheriff and some hostile locals, who're adamant that the trucks won't be allowed to pass through their town. Mrs. Sarge shows up,  having evidently been informed by mental telepathy of Sarge's injury. She's just in time to deliver a tearful monologue to her dying husband. She's really, really sorry now that she nagged him so much. I'm sure that's a big comfort.

The problem with the good people of Bismarck apparently resolves itself, or they found a detour, because next morning the boys are merrily trundling through the desert again. They're confronted with a new challenge, though, when the brakes fail on an oncoming school bus. Careening down the steep mountain road, it somehow manages to negotiate a series of switchbacks and hairpin curves as it barrels toward them.


"Do you want to go faster?"

Our guys heroically pull over, just in the nick of time! Joe breaks his collarbone when he dives into a ditch. And without realizing it, Ken cracked his truck's oil pan when he made that emergency stop.

Fortunately, the bus finds a nice, safe place to run off the road, and nobody's hurt. After all, the story's already killed off its allowable quota of children.

The journey continues. After a while, Ken notices the oil pressure's dropping and the engine is overheating. Time for another pull-over and consultation. Joe tells them he can't stop that oil leak. If they continue to run the engine, he warns, it'll throw a rod, then the truck will lose its brakes. But Mitch isn't about to give up. He says it's all downhill from here -- something I figured out roughly five minutes into this turkey.

So Mitch takes over and manfully wrastles that truck down the mountain. As far as this film's concerned, there's no such thing as too many rear-projection process shots. Of course our hero makes it to the bottom safely.

But there's still a ways to go to their destination. They rig a tow, with the defunct truck chained between the other two so the one in front can pull while the one behind brakes. You know, you can learn a thing or two about trucking from watching this film. That, and how to utterly botch every element of the classic thriller you're shamelessly and incompetently ripping off.

George -- who's been tapped to steer the towed truck -- gets cold feet, but Mitch has a totally butch heart-to-heart with him. He points out that if they don't complete the trip, Nelson's just going to make somebody else do it all over again. (Dear God! Nooooooooo....) George sucks it up and agrees to be something more than a waste of protoplasm.

Ben stands too close to the rear chain when they're taking in the slack, and his hand is injured, too. I'm beginning to think the filmmakers may have figured that if all else failed, they could market this dog to Jam Handy as an instructional film about workplace safety.

The trucks arrive at Cyclone Rockets' new plant without further incident, and there is much extremely masculine rejoicing. In a final thumb in the eye to Clouzot's film, outside the gate Carrie is waiting in her convertible for Mitch. She slides over and lets him take the wheel. Our two love birds drive off together, as Leith's score swells to a triumphant coda.

Americans know how to wrap up a manly movie about real men doing guy stuff the right way, see? Unlike you cheese-eating surrender monkeys, with your "lone surviving protagonist thinks he's immortal and dies foolishly when he crashes his truck" downer of an ending. So in your face, Jean Crapaud!

1 comment:

meanie-meanie, tickle a person said...

Yeah, man, the deaths of all those little kids would have gone down so much easier if the rocket had gone SPLOOT!!! when it hit....